Visual Effects Artist
Birthplace: Kenosha, WI
You Know Him As: Visual effects supervisor of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Did you know?: Both Jim Rygiel and his wife, Theresa Ellis Rygiel, have earned Clio awards for excellence in advertising and design.
On December 31, 1969, Jim Rygiel was born in Kenosha to parents Betty and Ed. Ed Rygiel worked at American Motors in Kenosha for 30 years “and got out of there just before they shut it down,” said Rygiel to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, he probably was going to work there too until, “I walked into the place, took the tour and walked out with a headache. I never went back.”
While still young, Rygiel realized that he would need to take chances if he wished to do something other than farming or factory work, so, he followed his imagination. As a child, Rygiel “watched TV until my head hurt. I just couldn’t be pulled away,” reported the Journal Sentinel. He remembers taking something as simple as a stick “and using it as a gun, a wrench or medical tool” and “playing out whole scenarios” with it. Rygiel completed his secondary education at St. Joseph High School, a private Catholic high school in Kenosha.
This youthful imagination took him to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he earned a degree in architecture in 1977. While studying architecture, he also dabbled in experimental film and art- following the creative lines of his mother and sister who painted. Rygiel recounted to UW-Milwaukee, “there are slices of all of my past teachers’ concepts in the work that I do today and for that I am extremely happy and grateful that UW-M was there and assembled this fine group of people.”
He went on to get his Master of Fine Arts Degree three years later, at the Otis Parsons School of Design in Los Angeles. From there, according to the Journal Sentinel, he “started tinkering around with electronic art pieces” and computers, which led him to computer animation field- at a time when this first came onto the scene. He became more involved in this new technology and worked with several companies, first with Pacific Electric Pictures and then with Digital Productions, in the advertising and film markets.
During these early stages of computer technology, the process was time-consuming and quite expensive to operate. The Cray computer, which was a very advanced model, cost about a million dollars per month initially, with additional time needed to manually type in all of the graphics.
“One of the things I was tormented over when I got out of art school was losing my aesthetic sense.” Rygiel notes on www.imdb.com. “People don’t see that you are being creative if you are not painting or drawing. I don’t see that at all. There is an aesthetic sense to this. It’s how well you do your job. The best part is when you are completely done with the film and you watch the film with the audience and feel what they are feeling.”
Rygiel stayed with the computer technology and began producing parts of commercials and films. “I was basically one of those starving-artists stories,” he says on IMDB. “My art transformed itself into the visual-effects world, but I still see myself doing art.”
While working with Digital Productions, Rygiel helped with computer-generated effects in a Sony Walkman commercial that ended up earning a Clio award in 1984 to mark creative excellence in advertising and design .
Rygiel also worked on “The Last Starfighter” (1984), which was the first movie to do all special effects (except makeup and explosions) on a computer.
“We knew we had bits and pieces of something applicable to film, but now we had to get the film executives interested,” Rygiel told the Wisconsin Technology Network of the struggle to get digital effects off the ground. “The industry saw it [the commercial] as a computer graphical ‘thing’ and not something that could make a motion picture.”
From 1987 until ‘89, Rygiel supervised many visual effects projects at Pacific Data Images and Metro Light.
In 1989 film executives finally become interested in computerized special effects, after the release of the film “The Abyss,” which featured digital graphics that created the monsters; overnight, it seemed to turn the industry into a success. From this tentative acceptance of digital animation, Rygiel was asked to found and head the computer animation department at Boss Film Studios, and he continued creating digital effects with greater success. This department grew from one person to over 75 animators and 100 support staff in less than one year. Boss Films helped with effects on films such as “Ghost” (1990), “Cliffhanger” (1993), “Starship Troopers” (1997), and “Air Force One” (1997), on which Rygiel was a visual effects supervisor. Rygiel won a second Clio award in 1993 for Boss Film Studios’ work on a GEO Prizm car commercial.
However, Boss Films closed in 1997, unable to earn enough money to support the advancing technologies and the large payroll. Rygiel went on to supervise visual effects independently with “The Parent Trap” (1998), “Anna and the King” (1999) and “102 Dalmatians” (2000).
His next job offer was to work on “Blade II,” an action-thriller-vampire movie starring Wesley Snipes that required a six-month move to Prague. However, Rygiel had just returned home from six months in England working on “102 Dalmatians” and wanted his next project to be closer to the home he was building in California so he declined the offer.
A month later he heard about the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, based on the popular books by J.R.R. Tolkien, that was being filmed in New Zealand.
“It was a crazy thing, but I decided, well, I’ll go down there for a week,” Rygiel told UW-Milwaukee. “I stayed for three weeks.”
The three years spent in New Zealand seemed to fly by for Rygiel, despite the amount of work required (about a year) for each of the three installments.
“It’s very much like Wisconsin. The pace is slower. There’s a farming community feel. They take life easier” UW-M reported. Over the course of the trilogy, about 23,000 different people worked on the movies. Of those, around 800 reported to Rygiel. In comparison, “102 Dalmatians,” his previous project, required only 40 to 50 people.
Given the choice to either work with “Blade II” or the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Rygiel surely made the right choice. It earned him an Oscar for Best Visual Effects, as well as British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards for Best Achievement in Special Visual Effects for each of the three “Lord of the Rings” films. He was even honored by the American Film Institute as the Digital Effects Artist of the Year for “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001). These awards, and several others, proved that Lord of the Rings was, in fact, the right choice; it enhanced his credibility immeasurably.
Jim’s wife, Theresa Ellis Rygiel, is a visual effects supervisor in her own right. Her credits include “Waterworld” (1995), “Deep Blue Sea” (1999) and “X-Men” (2000). According to Jim, the Journal Sentinel reported, she “probably was the most uprooted” by the move to New Zealand (Journal Sentinel). However, living in New Zealand with him, she was able to work briefly on the first film, more on the second and became heavily involved in the final film, for which she headed the 3-D department.
Jim and Theresa now live with their two children in California.
Biography by Katie Doucet